Unlike many members of Congress, Abby Finkenauer doesn’t own a home. She can’t afford to buy a new car, so she drives a 10-year old Chevy. That’s because instead of making car payments, she puts about $300 a month toward paying off the $20,000 of student debt she’s still carrying from college.
She’s 29, a first-generation college graduate, and the Democratic nominee for Congress from Iowa’s 1st district, running to unseat GOP Representative Rod Blum. And for her, the student debt problem is both personal and political, something she hopes to address if her campaign is successful.
“There’s a whole generation of folks that are around my age or who are not doing as well as our parents did,” Finkenauer says at a coffee shop in Dubuque before an event with former Vice President Joe Biden. Debt has kept her and her cohort from buying houses and cars, putting down roots, and participating fully in the economy. “Everything is getting delayed right now and, and not because of necessarily folks want it to be, but just the economic reality of it,” she says.
Americans carry roughly $1.5 trillion in student debt, and about 70% of college graduates leave college with student loans to pay off (the average debt load for a bachelor’s degree was a little over $30,000 in 2016). But most of those people carrying that debt are recent college graduates, and most of the people who are making debt policy are not.
Finkenauer says that massive debt burden is one of the critical economic problems of the 21st century, and most politicians are ignoring it. “These are the types of issues that just aren’t being talked about in D.C.,” she says. “There are not a lot of people sitting around thinking about student loans.” It’s “mind blowing,” she says, that young people can’t refinance their loans the way families can refinance their mortgages.
Blum, who has represented Iowa’s 1st district since 2015, describes himself as a “tea party Republican” and was endorsed by Trump in a rally in Iowa and on Twitter. He is 63.
If she’s elected next week, Finkenauer will be one of a new cohort of young Democratic representatives who are likely to significantly lower the median age in the Congress. She’ll join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also 29) and several other young women candidates running tough races this year, including Katie Hill in California (31) and Lauren Underwood in Illinois (32).
That’s why Finkenauer’s campaign is so unusual. Young people are carrying more debt than ever at a time when it’s more expensive than ever to run for office. Candidates without deep pockets or wealthy connections have a hard time mounting a real campaign, and rich candidates who can self-fund have an advantage over candidates who have to ask for cash. But Finkenauer, who was raised by a union pipefitter-welder and a school secretary, has managed to raise nearly $4 million, overwhelmingly from individual contributions. Iowa’s first district voted for Obama and then Trump, and handily re-elected Rod Blum in 2016. But the nonpartisan Cook Political Report now has the district leaning Democratic, with some polls showing Finkenauer with a solid lead.
“If you’d told me two years ago that you’d have a Democrat running as a challenger raising that amount of money for an Iowa congressional seat, I don’t think I would have believed you,” says Des Moines attorney and Democratic strategist Grant Woodard. “I continue to be blown away by her fundraising numbers.”
Most of the young women running for Congress this year are new to politics. But Finkenauer has served as a state representative from the Dubuque area since 2015. One of the first bills she introduced was a measure to use employer tax credits to help Iowa students refinance their loans. It didn’t pass, and Finkenauer says that a party leader told her it was the first student loan bill he’d ever seen in the Iowa state legislature. “At least it was an idea,” she says. “It just again shows what differences we will hopefully be able to make once there are different people sitting at the tables making the decisions.”
Like most Democrats running in Republican-held districts, Finkenauer spends most of her time talking about kitchen-table issues like protecting health care coverage, creating jobs, and protecting labor unions. But her economic message is tinged with a generational insight that many of her older colleagues ignore. Implicit in her arguments is a message of hope: not just that Iowans can get better jobs, but that young Iowans who left to go to college might be able to come home and put down roots where they grew up.
“We tend to skew older than most states in terms of the age of our population,” says Woodard. “But continually in Iowa, particularly in rural Iowa, we’re always asking ourselves how we keep young people here.”
It’s not just a jobs problem, she says; it’s that student loans have interrupted the American Dream. Her classmates “want to be able to buy a house to live next to mom and dad and their grandparents and have the kind of life like they had growing up in Iowa.”
“People do want to come back home,” she says. “But can you have a job that pays enough to be able to pay off the loans at the same time?
Supporters at a Finkenauer rally said her youth is an asset. “She knows what it’s like to go into debt for a degree that we’re told we ‘have’ to have,” says Olivia Calvin, 18, who is studying math and environmental science at Coe College. She was happy to cast her first-ever vote for “somebody who’s actually going to be alive in 2030, to see the [environmental] projections.”
Older supporters talked about Finkenauers’ working class roots and her familiarity with rural issues. “She’s in a position to be balanced between Iowa’s manufacturing and rural sides,” says Les Bailey, a 71-year old retired welder. “I’d like to see the torch passed.”